Andes Mint #28: My magical friend K

It was many years ago that I met K. In my memory, she came up to me in one of the marble-floored halls of a turreted building on the east bank of the University of Minnesota, took my hands in hers, and said, “I’m K. Who are you?”

That memory has to be wrong, but nonetheless it’s how I remember meeting her. It’s something she might have done, that much I know – see a young woman with a big pregnant belly ease her way into a chair around a big table, make a mental note to get to know her, then find her in the hallway and take her hands. Yes, that’s something K would have done.

I was young, she was a few years older, and I remember her looking at my belly and then looking up at me. Still holding my hands.

“You’re going to have a baby,” she said. “How wonderful.”

This was my second baby, and even though I wanted it, I was exhausted, couldn’t stop throwing up (morning sickness, for some lucky women, lasts until the minute the baby’s born) and overwhelmed. But there was something in her soft voice, something in the way her head was tilted as she spoke.

“Do you want one too?” I said.

“Oh, I do,” she said. “I do want a baby. But I’m afraid it’s too late.”

Those are my first memories of K. So long ago now. From that day forth we were friends. She was –and is– a beautiful woman with a soft voice that always sounds, to my ear, full of air. As if her voice belongs to the sky. She is slender, and light on her feet. She doesn’t make much sound when she walks.

Back then, in those long-ago days of grad school, we used to sit in workshops together and communicate telepathically. We reacted the same way to certain comments, suggestions, and styles of teaching. We followed up afterward when we met for coffee or tea or dinner at the King & I. We were of like mind.

At that time, K lived in a sublet, a studio in downtown Minneapolis. I remember it as full of clothes and books and papers and photos.

That soft, air-filled voice of hers, her gentle touch, her lightness, belied an underlying steel. Grit. Determination. I used to laugh inside sometimes, watching how she’d tilt her head at a cutting comment in workshop, smile that beautiful smile, and say, “Okay. . . okay.” I knew exactly what was happening inside her, knew that that gentle okay meant anything but.

Back then, K longed for horses. She longed for the west. I think now that what she really longed for was freedom. Freedom, for her, meant a horse that she could jump on and ride for hours, through land where she would see no one else. Freedom meant wide-open space, huge mountains that she could ski down all winter long, rangeland where animals far outnumbered humans. Freedom meant a child to pour her prodigious love into, a child she could raise to be as fearless as she was.

I remember when she got pregnant. Solo didn’t matter to her; she had no fear of raising a child by herself. I remember being as thrilled for her, almost, as she was. By then we were long out of grad school and she had moved to Texas.

I remember a phone call, when she was halfway through that pregnancy, which broke my heart; hers was already broken. Sometimes babies, no matter how much you want them, don’t come together inside you in a way that’s going to let them live once they’re outside.

I remember getting on a plane and going down to Texas to hold her hand through an awful procedure that she would never in her life have chosen to go through. It happened before dawn, in a locked room in a locked hall of a locked building; it had to, for safety. Why do so many try to make a private, agonizing decision a matter of public policy?

She took a few years after that to pull herself together, and then she became the mother of a little girl from a faraway country. The last time I saw K, until last month, was twelve years ago, when she came briefly to Minneapolis over the holidays.

My only memory of that visit was of sitting on a couch I’d found on the curbside and dragged into the living room of a new apartment. She wrapped her arms around me as her baby girl hauled herself around on the floor and I cried and cried and cried; I too was going through something awful.

Flash forward to a month ago. My youthful companion, herself a girl who longs for horses and wide-open rangeland and the peace that comes with that, was going to work on a ranch in Colorado. K had been living in Colorado for years by then.

“You have to come stay with us,” she said, in response to a Facebook post of mine in which I had asked for suggestions of good hikes in southwestern Colorado. “I insist. My horses insist. My daughter insists. You are coming.”

Twelve years stretched between the last time I’d seen her. But a while ago I decided to say yes to every invitation that comes my way. And this was an invitation from K.

So out we drove, to find ourselves winding around a dirt road that went on for miles, me laughing because somehow, it was only fitting that K –who began in a rented studio in downtown Minneapolis, remember– would end up here.

As we drove farther and farther from anything that felt like people-world, we began to see horses. Dogs. This felt like K, like a place where she would live. My youthful companion pointed out her window at the slightly insane sight of a dog leaping wildly at a sprinkler, over and over and over.

We turned the car off when we could go no farther. There was a house perched on hundreds of acres of Colorado high desert. We were still laughing at the insane sprinkler dog when we got out of the car.

“This has got to be her place,” I said to my youthful companion. “This is exactly K’s kind of place.”

The air was dry and warm and filled with the scent of sage, that high desert smell that I remembered from living in Colorado during summers long ago. My youthful companion and I stood in the drive and looked around: horses in the open grassland, heads down and tails switching.

Dogs everywhere, racing each other down the field or lying in the shade of giant sunflowers. Chickens, clucking and pecking by the side of the house. A potbellied pig, waddling across a muddy patch of irrigated garden.

K emerged from the house. A parrot clung to the top of her head. Her daughter followed, holding a rabbit in her arms.

I gave her a hug, still laughing. The parrot leapt from the top of her head to the top of mine. I spread my arms wide and turned around.

“So this is you,” I said.

“This is me,” she said.

It was her: all that open land. All those animals. Ten chickens and five dogs and two cats and one rabbit and two pigs and seven birds and ten horses. All of them, with the exception of one cat and the chickens, rescue animals. All with names. All loved, all understood in a way that most humans don’t understand animals.

That is K. That is how she’s always been.

“So you finally have your magical menagerie,” I said. “The menagerie you always wanted.”

“I guess I do,” she said, looking around. “I guess I do.”

“And the dogs don’t eat the chickens and the cats don’t eat the birds and nothing chases the rabbits and everyone is free to go in and out of the house,” I said. It wasn’t a question; I already knew the answer. “How do you do it?”

“I don’t know,” she said in that same soft, sky-filled voice. “It all just works.”

So that is how the youthful companion and I came to spend an enchanted three days in the high desert, sleeping in a room with a rabbit and two dogs and a couple of potbellied pigs and a chicken or two wandering in and out. The youthful companion and K’s daughter rode bareback through the rangeland.

K and I sat on the deck drinking wine and watching a full moon rise over the mountains to the east. We watched our girls come riding back to the paddock. We talked about them, how easy they are in their bodies, both of them, and we talked about that long-ago baby boy, the one who wasn’t ready for this world, the one who had to go back to that other, unknown one.

Some people are drawn earthward as the years go by. You can see them on the sidewalk or walking up a set of stairs, their heads down, backs curved, that earthward tug calling them down. Hard to stand up straight.

Others are drawn skyward. They lighten. Their bones hollow out. Whenever they want they can turn in all directions and see the enormous horizon. Hard to keep anchored to the surface of the world.

I’m sitting on my couch right now thinking about K, how filled she is with air and light. A sky person.

How clearly I can still see her green eyes that day in the marble-floored hallway when I first met her, here in the city in which I still live. How I can feel her hands holding mine that day, telling me how much she wanted a baby. Horses. Animals and animals. A life in the country.

I’m thinking about how twelve years can pass with only an occasional Christmas card between two friends, and how –when it all works– that doesn’t matter.

How sometimes you can drive a thousand miles and end up on a dirt road in the midst of hundreds of acres of juniper and sage, to find someone you love having winnowed herself and her life down, funneled it all into the exact life she was meant to live.

Andes Mint #27: Chapter One

Once, somewhere in this world, not long ago and not far from where you are reading this, it was the middle of the night on a quiet block in a city of canyons. Everyone who lived in the tall brick apartment buildings that lined either side of the street was asleep. Sleeping children. Sleeping grownups. Sleeping cats and dogs and birds and mice.

There in the middle of the night on that quiet city block, everything was dark except for the street lamps on either end. The lamps shined down from their tall poles and made pools of light that illuminated a few squares of sidewalk before the dark closed in again. In a few hours, when the sun began to rise on the far side of the river at the edge of the city, the street lamps would switch off. The sky would lighten. Everyone who was sleeping would begin to stir.

For now, the honking of cars and the revving of motorcycles and the beep beep beep of reversing trucks were absent. Had you been standing there, you might have assumed that nothing was happening, nothing except sleep and silence.

But that wasn’t true.

At the far end of the block, in front of a triple-locked and shuttered storefront door, a small dog lay sleeping. This dog was familiar to the inhabitants of the block, although no one knew his name. Everyone who had noticed him trotting along the sidewalk, day in and day out, assumed that he lived with someone in an apartment. Or that he belonged to a shopkeeper and lived in the shopkeeper’s store. Or that he was a restaurant kitchen dog who went home with a busboy or a sous-chef and a bag of scraps at the end of each long night.

They were all wrong.

The truth was that the small dog had no home. If he belonged to anything, he belonged to the block itself. He hadn’t been there long. No one knew exactly how old he was, but if you looked at him carefully you would have seen that he was young. A puppy, maybe.

The street lamp shined down on the orange letters written in swirly script on the whitewashed stone above the door.

Sanjeev’s Store.

As he slept, the small dog nosed and scrabbled and sighed and panted. Maybe something was chasing him in his dream. Maybe he was trying to hide from someone. Maybe he was too hungry to sleep well. The door to Sanjeev’s Store was locked, and in his sleep, the dog pushed himself tight up against the door, so that if it opened suddenly, he would roll right inside.

Had you been standing there that night, on that block of sleepers and dreamers not far from where you are reading this, you might not have known that anything was unusual about the block. But it wasn’t an ordinary place. The tops of the two tallest brick buildings were often draped in clouds, so that their inhabitants looked out on soft whiteness instead of clear air. Sound around the cloud dwellers was muffled. Telephones didn’t work in those apartments, and neither did televisions or radios or computers or anything else that most other people took for granted.

There was something else unusual about the block, a dark and hidden something, but it would take two children –Miranda and Bernard– to figure that out.

No, it wasn’t an ordinary place at all.

Maybe that’s why, even if someone had noticed the small dog huddled against Sanjeev’s Store in the middle of that one night, he wouldn’t have thought twice about him. No one was there, though. No one noticed when a lone car stuttered around the corner and then came rocketing down the street. The car’s lights were off. Its engine revved and its brakes squealed as the driver, peering through the windshield, tried to avoid the street lamp looming up next to the store.

The driver never saw the small dog, confused and terrified by the sudden noise, leap up and skitter away from the door. The radio in the car was too loud for the driver to hear the crunch as the dog was flung into the air. As he ricocheted off the fender. As he collapsed in a heap on the sidewalk. All the driver knew was that somehow he had managed to miss the street lamp, and that made him happy. So he stomped down on the gas pedal and careened on down the empty street, swung left through the red light and was gone.

Andes Mint #25: By the Numbers

Zip codes in which you have lived: 13354, 02114 (past), 55408 (current), and 05346 (also current). Apartments: six. Houses: four. Bathroomless one-room cabins in Dummerston, Vermont: one. Children, two of whom are now as tall or taller than you: three. Neurotic cats: one. Hyper dogs who remain meth-head-like no matter how much you exercise them: one. Broken bones: two. Trips to Italy: two. Times fallen in love: five. Eyeballs lasered: two. Days spent rising before 5 a.m. to write until you wrote a book good enough to be published: 5,476 minus approximately 1500 spent despairing of talent, lacking in work ethic, or too damn tired = 3975. Shoe size: ten. Minutes per running mile: a sad nine. Ability to alpine ski, despite having attended a college with its own Snow Bowl: zero. Novels read: approximately 900. Trips to China: three. Times spent slapping then-four-year-old son in middle of night when you were exhausted and he would not let you sleep: one. Times spent despising self for slapping then-four-year-old son in middle of night when you were exhausted and he would not let you sleep: countless. Trips to Taiwan: two. Novels written (published or soon to be): 11. Novels written (that will never be published): 3.5. Trips to Paris: one. Vows to stop saying the f-word in front of children: countless. Times vow to stop saying the f-word in front of children has been broken: countless. Ratio of children’s picture books written to those published: approximately 30:1. Best friends named Ellen Harris Swiggett: one. Marriages: one. Divorces: one. Trips to Portugal: two. Regrets: a few. Poems read before dawn daily: three. Current favorite adult beverage: vodka gimlet, up, in a martini glass. Friends and family members seen through cancer treatment: seven. Trips to Turkey: one. Mountain that can be glimpsed in leafless seasons from top of acreage in Dummerston: Monadnock. Shortest length of hair: one inch. Longest length of hair: three feet. Shade required to maintain hair’s unnatural color: Cool Light Brown. Trips to London: one. Exact pre-dawn times at which you typically wake: 2:47, 3:20, 4:54. Strong cups of coffee drunk before dawn: .7. Men who, upon noting length of fingers, have asked if you can palm a basketball: approximately 18. Times you have palmed a basketball: none. Times heart has been broken: five. Trips to Mexico: ten. Pairs of tomato-red suede pants: one. Times spent dreaming that you are driving up an increasingly vertical road until your car tips backward and you fall into a bottomless void: at least 46. Times spent dreaming that you are short one chemistry class and therefore cannot graduate: at least 37. Letters written to grandmother before she died: approximately 570. Lindt Milk Chocolate Truffles consumed: approximately 2100. Times spent practicing Chopin’s Prelude in F Minor without noticeable improvement: approximately 233. Trips to Bhutan, Morocco, Macchu Picchu: none. Yet. Times daily you think how lucky you are to be living this big fat life: at least three.

Andes Mint #21: Poem of the Week, by Ellen Bass

Pleasantville, New Jersey, 1955
– Ellen Bass

I’d never seen a rainbow or picked
a tomato off the vine. Never walked in an orchard
or a forest. The only tree I knew
grew in the square of dirt hacked
out of the asphalt, the mulberry
my father was killing slowly, pounding
copper nails into its trunk.
But one hot summer afternoon
my mother let me drag the cot onto the roof.
Bed sheets drying on the lines,
the cat’s cardboard box of dirt in the corner,
I lay in an expanse of blueness. Sun rippled
over my skin like a breeze over water.
My eyelids closed. I could hear the ripe berries
splatting onto the alley, the footsteps
of customers tracking in the sticky, purple mash.
I heard the winos on the wooden crates,
brown bags rustling at the throats of Thunderbird.
Car engines stuttered, came to life and died
in the A&P parking lot and I smelled grease and coffee
from the diner where Stella, the dyke, washed dishes
with a pack of Camels tucked
in the rolled-up sleeve of her t-shirt.
Next door, Helen Schmerling leaned on the glass case
slipping her fist into seamed and seamless stockings,
nails tucked in, to display the shade, while Sol
sucked the marrow from his stubby cigar,
smoke settling into the tweed skirts and mohair sweaters.
And under me something muscular swarmed
in the liquor store, something alive
in the stained wooden counter and the pungent dregs
of beer in the empties, my mother
greeting everyone, her frequent laughter,
the shorn pale necks of the delivery men,
their hairy forearms. The cash register ringing
as my parents pushed their way, crumpled dollar
by dollar, into the middle class.
The sun was delicious, lapping my skin.
I felt that newly arrived in a body.
The city wheeled around me–
the Rialto movie, Allen’s shoe store, Stecher’s Jewelry,
the whole downtown three blocks long.
And I was at the center of our tiny
solar system flung out on the edge
of a minor arm, a spur of one spiraling galaxy,
drenched in the light.

For more information on Ellen Bass, please click here:

Andes Mint #19: Kingsley

Get up at 4:00 a.m., make and drink a cup of strong coffee, get dressed, wheel your roller bag out the dark path to the dark car, head to the airport, get on the first of two small planes that land you in the White Plains airport at noon.

Rent a car. Tap in the address where your friend Kingsley now lives into your tiny phone and then tap Start.

Avoid dwelling on your dread of driving in New York City traffic. Do what the robotic phone voice tells you to do. Err. Correct your errors by again doing what the robotic phone voice tells you to.

Glance to your right and see the New York City skyline gleaming along the river. Think it never gets old.

Find the place where Kingsley lives now. Walk in and fill out all the blanks in the Visitor registry. Take the elevator to the fourth floor. Wander blankly until you see his room and his name and the name of his doctor and his nurse.

Walk in and stand silently until he looks up from the mystery he’s reading. See that big smile spread across his face and feel its twin on your own.

Unhook a folding chair from the wall and set it up next to his bed. Sit there for six hours. Show him photos of your family on your iPad; admire his deft touch on the screen when he tells you he wants to “turn the page” while you narrate.

Google his favorite radio show host from long ago –Jean Shepherd– and download a podcast of one of his shows. Sit and listen together, his smile as he listens making you smile too.

Watch his face turn grim with pain. Call the nurse and ask for painkillers. Rub his legs to see if that might help; it does.

Meander through the last 18 years of friendship together. Remember when this? Remember when that?

Admire his new haircut. Tell him your mother sends her greetings, your children send their love. Tell him about your brand-new nephew Arthur and how much you love that they named him Arthur. Agree together that Arthur is a name.

As you sit and talk, don’t let yourself think about what is over now. Don’t think about the years and years in which packages arrived regularly, put together as he zipped around Chinatown collecting things for you that he thought you would like.

Don’t think, that is never going to happen again, walking out onto the porch and seeing a taped-together cardboard box sitting on it with his return address in neatly-printed Sharpie in the upper lefthand corner and your name in the middle, with the Alison in red and the rest in black.

Scold yourself for feeling sad about that, for feeling so sad at how hard it is for him to move his legs even a tiny bit now, because right now you are together, and he is happy, and you are reminiscing together, and what you need to do is focus on this moment and this moment alone. Can you do that? Yes. Kind of.

Maneuver the rolling table close to him when his dinner tray arrives. Accept his offer of the salad he doesn’t want to eat, along with the fork he’s not going to use for his soup and his hot dog. Answer his question about the ranch dressing in the tiny plastic packet.

As you eat, discuss some of the dozens of meals you have shared over these many years. Ask him about his mother’s cooking. Ask if they ate together as a family. Describe the meal you cooked last night using only vegetables from your backyard garden.

Tell him you have to go soon, because it’s a five-hour drive to Vermont. Tell him you’ll keep searching for that new kind of Pringles he’s so interested in. Tell him you’ll send him another mystery next week.

Hug him. Hold his hand when he reaches for yours.

Andes Mint #11: Credo


I believe in tenderness.
I believe in lying on your porch swing on a summer night and watching the passersby.
I believe in eating as many Oreos as you want.
I believe that climbing down the mountain is harder than hiking up.
I believe in standing in the doorway watching your small children as they sleep.
I believe that I have lived too much of my life in fear.
I believe in Mint Sprint toenail polish.
I believe that you can choose to be kind.
I believe that I would not know how to live in this world without my best friend.
I believe that the most fun place to eat in a restaurant is at the bar.
I believe that art has saved me from madness.
I believe that the older I get, the more I enjoy life.
I believe that I have done many things that scared me.
I believe that I am loved.
I believe in a world invisibly part of this world.
I believe that sick days are best used for days when you are not sick.
I believe in the CFTD method of parenting.
I believe that I have courage.
I believe in slant rhyme, slant worlds, and slanting roofs.
I believe you should listen to the same song as many times in a row as you want.
I believe in holding hands.
I do not believe that everything worth doing must be done well.
I do not believe that everything worth doing is difficult.
I believe that I have tried.
I believe that I have tried, at times, too hard.
I believe that I have hurt people I love.
I believe that the people I love know that I love them.
I believe that a single moment of truth and tenderness can redeem years of pain.
I believe what Stanley Kunitz said: that in breaking, the heart can break open.

Andes Mint #5: and she drove like a bat out of hell, too.

She was fifty-five when you were born. Hers is the first face you conjure at dawn when you bow your head to your clasped hands. Hers is the scent that you tracked through a Hallmark card store until you found the old lady wearing it, bent over the Get Well cards, who looked up when you started to cry. Hers are the dresses, old and flowered and heavy polyester and unlaundered, that you keep tied up tight in a white plastic bag on a shelf in your closet, that you sometimes untie and bury your nose in. She is the one who taught you how to fold a towel the right way. She is the one who could wring a chicken’s neck and tat a doily and scrub a floor and grade 45 English compositions all in the same evening. Hers was the pantry in which you slept at Christmas, surrounded by tin after tin of her cookies. Hers is the tiny nose that turned bright red the one time she drank a sip of Champagne. She is the one who swayed in the kitchen to the sounds of Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass. She is the one who played the tiny electric organ with the choose-your-own background accompaniment. It was she who took you to Dairy Queen every night when you visited for that week in the summer, and it was she who asked you if you were sure that one little cone was enough, and didn’t you want a sundae at least? She was the one who gave you fourths on everything. On her coffee table was a blue glass bowl full of butterscotch candies. She laughed and laughed when Arthur tossed his spitballs at the dinner table. She had a dog named Jody. She put reflecting balls in her flower gardens. She is the one who said Semi-gloss, that’s what you want, because you can wash it with a sponge. She wrote you hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of letters, all of which you still have, overflowing from boxes and bags in your basement. She is the one you always replied to.  She is the one who that one day when you went to visit her could not, suddenly, make you dinner anymore. She is the one you pushed in the wheelchair. She is the one who wrote in shaky handwriting What a happy life we had together, but it wasn’t long enough. She is the one you talk to every day in your mind. Hers is the unmistakable scent you smelled the day you needed her so badly and you walked into your friend’s house and stopped short, overcome, but your friend smelled nothing. She is the one who found no faults in you. Hers were the hands you held, knotted and gnarled with the arthritis that she swore didn’t hurt. She is the one that you, phone hater, called once a week. It was to her that you said It’s okay, you can go, you don’t have to hold on anymore when your mother held the phone to her ear that last day, and then you hung up and made that sound you had never heard yourself make. It was her eulogy you wrote and read in that sun-streaked church after Oatie sang Danny Boy. Her name is the answer to every one of your computer security questions. She is the only person in this world about whom you have not one, single, regret.

Andes Mint #4: Rocky Mountain High

What you remember from the summer you turned 20:

How it felt to behold the snow-capped Rockies rising up out of the distance, far higher and far more jagged than you, a girl from the foothills of the Adirondacks, knew mountains could be.

How it felt to stand in the living room of a kind stranger who had offered you and your boyfriend shelter that first night, stars whirling in your eyes, the world going black, and wake on the floor a few minutes later with chipped teeth and a fierce headache.

“Altitude sickness,” said the kind stranger. “You took a divot out of the table on your way down.”

How to clean a hotel room. Bathroom first: a) sink, b) tub, c) toilet, d) mirror, e) floor. Mini-fridge: check for leftovers. Strip the bed. Remake the bed. Vacuum. Dust. Lock the door behind you.

How you laughed at the title of the job your boyfriend got at that lodge on the edge of town: Houseboy. How he used to lock himself and three oranges inside a room inside a room inside a room on his lunch hour to teach himself how to juggle. How good he got at it.

How every day around 1 p.m. thunderclouds gathered over the mountain and rain poured down for twenty minutes. The scrape of chairs and tables being hauled inside. The smell of wet cobblestone and pavement. The scrape of chairs and tables being hauled outside again. The rinsed smell of the air.

How it felt to hike up the mountain and ride the gondola down, as if you knew a secret none of the tourists who rode the gondola both ways knew.

How angry you felt the night the cops came to the apartment to arrest your friend for taking a single piece of ham and an orange from the kitchen of the restaurant where he worked.

How triumphant you felt when you dangled a piece of string in a stream high up in the mountains and watched in amazement as a trout impaled itself on the safety pin you had tied onto the end of that string.

How you used to stand by the side of the highway, thumb out, hitching a ride to the Safeway a couple of miles away. The feel of the tall grass brushing your bare legs. The dry smell of sage.

How the boys’ voices drifted back toward you near the summit of that one mountain. Headache, pounding heart, swimmy stars. Altitude sickness, said the kind stranger. How you jackknifed your body so that you could use your hands to climb the rest of the way, like a monkey.

How the girls with long hair and tie-dye skirts, flowers in their hands, danced for hours at that Dead concert that the three of you hitched to. Or took the Greyhound to. How you got up in the middle of the night, in darkness, to get there in time. How the sweet smell of pot drifted over the canyon.

How you got so good at flipping through the Welcome to Colorado magazines that were placed in each hotel room in order to find the Buy One Whopper Get One Free coupon near the back. How you carefully folded the page in quarters so as to tear out the coupon.

How it felt to come home after cleaning all those rooms, tired, and drag yourself up the double flight of stairs (Altitude sickness, said the kind stranger) and put your key in the lock.

How you used to mix a tall glass of lemonade and vodka and sit cross-legged on the balcony to watch the sun set. How you used to sit there and wonder, “Am I a grownup now?”